Sunday 6 December 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Post-November it feels appropriate to write about one of the greatest successes to come out of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in recent years – Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which enjoyed widespread critical attention and seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List.

The Night Circus straddles fantasy and romance, in a late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century setting, as Celia and Marco – orphans reared to develop their magical powers – compete in the environs of the mysterious travelling spectacle in a battle designed to leave only one victor.

There is much to admire in the novel. It’s opening (‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.’) will probably – and rightly – be used as an example of a great ‘hook’ in creative writing classes across the English-speaking world.

Morgenstern has a highly sensory imagination. The world of the circus is a rich one, with an apparently endless number of tents designed to blur the line between reality and illusion, the possible and the magical. This for instance is the Cloud Maze:

‘The tower itself is a series of platforms swooping in odd, diaphanous shapes, quite similar to clouds. They are layered, like a cake. From what Bailey can see, the space between the layers varies from room enough to walk straight through to barely enough to crawl. Here and there parts of it almost float away from the central tower, drifting off into space.’

A hallmark of Morgenstern’s descriptions, which helps create the dreamlike atmosphere of the Le Cirque des Reves, is her imprecision. This is the Cloud Maze but the platforms it contains are only ‘quite similar to clouds’. We are reminded that this is only ‘what Bailey can see’ – there may be even more to this tent than we imagine. And what does the final sentence actually mean? Do parts of this construction float and drift or not?

This imprecision, which can work so well, occasionally becomes irritating on close reading. What colour are the kittens in the following?

‘A kaleidoscope of colour, blazing with carmine and coral and canary, so much so that the entire room often appears to be on fire, dotted with fluffy kittens dark as soot and bright as sparks.’

Erin Morgenstern (1978-)
But where Morgenstern’s vagueness is most detrimental to the novel isn’t in her descriptive passages but in her plotting and characterisation – to which this non-committal approach unfortunately also applies.

Billed as an epic love story and a fierce battle, The Night Circus reads like neither. It’s hard to feel for characters who you only understand on a superficial level, as more ink is spilled on describing their gowns, their apartments and their bowler hats than on exploring their interiority.

The tension that should come from the deadly tournament never materialises, as you are sure there must be some escape in this world where the rules are constantly changing. Halfway through the novel, Marco and Celia admit to each other that neither wants to win. I was hopeful for a twist or a betrayal, but this is a Romeo and Juliet where everything goes to plan for the star-crossed lovers.

Intrigued by the opening and pulled in by the world building, I kept waiting for clever storytelling to hit me hard, but the novel is the epitome of style over substance.

The same is true of the historical setting. The characters don’t read as nineteenth-century at all, except in the visual cues Morgenstern borrows from the period, which is a shame as it would have worked well to have some sense of the real world the characters were escaping from.

I was excited by the introduction of the ‘reveurs’ – visitors to the circus so enamoured by the experience that they create a subculture around following it around the world – thinking to find some clever interplay with late Victorian aestheticism, but this comparison went no further.

The novel is what The Great Gatsby would be were it only a catalogue of Gatsby’s parties, it’s The Picture of Dorian Gray if Wilde’s story didn’t move beyond the environs of Basil Haywood’s studio on a summer’s day.

That said, it’s worth reading. This too is one neo-Victorian novel that seems like a prime target for beautiful adaptation on film. But, while you may fall in the love with the night circus itself, it will be with the world - not the story.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist read next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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